Maria Cullen of MSD is standing against a grey wall outdoors and wearing a pink blazer while smiling into the camera.
Maria Cullen. Image: MSD

Recruiting remotely: Advice from MSD’s Maria Cullen

27 Apr 2020

Maria Cullen, talent acquisition lead at MSD, offers her insights for implementing best practices when recruiting remotely.

For many of us, there are new challenges we must face as we adjust to remote working. For recruiters, the entire hiring process may need to be revised, from candidate selection and interviewing to onboarding.

That’s something Maria Cullen, talent acquisition lead at MSD Ireland, has had to contend with in recent weeks. We caught up with Cullen to learn more about her approaches to hiring new people remotely.

Although MSD was already familiar with the practice of working and hiring remotely to some degree before Covid-19, she emphasised the importance of ensuring candidate experiences “stay the same, even in the current situation”.

How have you been navigating recruiting remotely at MSD?

Our final, face-to-face candidate engagement stage is our opportunity to really get to know the candidate in a more relaxed way. It’s during this stage that the candidate usually does what we call a ‘whiteboard interview’, where they can depict their story through writing or drawing on a whiteboard. We don’t judge what the candidate puts on the whiteboard, we are just interested in their story and we’ve found it helps candidates to tell us the highlights of their career path in a much better way than the traditional question-and-answer interview approach.

We therefore wanted to ensure this approach was maintained while obviously requiring some tweaking to adapt to the current situation. We are delighted to have been successful in adjusting our process to ensure it can be supported by the virtual platform we are using.

We understand that these are uncertain times for people, and large numbers of the population have had to adapt to working remotely without any warning. MSD is in the fortunate position to still be hiring for a wide and varied range of roles across our sites, and we want our recruitment process and experience to be as easy as possible for candidates and hiring managers alike.

‘Now more than ever, talent acquisition professionals need to be creative, flexible, adaptable and empathetic’

We ensure our hiring managers are set up for success in advance by coordinating closely with them regarding how the selection process will work and the various stages that need to be conducted online. It is an adjustment for everyone, but we have developed a number of creative solutions to overcome any challenges that arise.

Feedback is important to us so we can improve our processes and provide a consistent experience for candidates. We dedicate time to discuss what worked and didn’t work after meeting each candidate so that we can adapt and improve our approach on an ongoing basis.

At the same time, we completely understand that it can be stressful doing an interview at home, so we make sure we put our candidates at ease. We have developed collateral and a briefing pack to ensure all candidates feel comfortable and prepared for their interview.

Are there any major benefits or drawbacks to remote interviews over face-to-face ones?

We have seen a lot of benefits to virtual hiring. Not every candidate will be able to attend a face-to-face meeting, so virtual hiring can improve accessibility for people who would otherwise have trouble attending in person. This allows us to tap into a broader pool of talent.

We also accept and welcome that interviews now may be even more informal with everyone being in their homes. Our culture is very inclusive and relaxed in MSD, and we encourage authenticity and want candidates to be themselves. When people feel comfortable being themselves, their personality shines through and that’s when they feel the most empowered in their role.

The only drawback in relation to the candidate is that they may not get to experience the actual site where they will be working prior to accepting the role. We are currently exploring options for virtual tours of our sites and offices, developing videos to showcase our offering in terms of the working environment. This would enable our candidates to get a flavour of the site they have applied to work at.

What do you think are the most important things to remember when interviewing remotely?

I think communication and preparation are key to interviewing remotely. It is important to communicate the processes clearly to candidates and ensure they understand all the tools they need, such as being expected to use video as well as audio or needing to share their screen for any stage of the interview.

We work with our candidates to set them up for success, checking in with them ahead of time to ensure they have everything they require and are comfortable with their technology and set-up.

It is also important to remember that not everyone will have access to the same resources. If a candidate’s internet connection is not strong or reliable and they are experiencing difficulties, offering them the chance to reschedule gives them the chance to put their best foot forward.

Sometimes things can go wrong during a remote interview – technology can fail, there can be unexpected noise disruptions – we don’t want any of our candidates to worry about this. I think it’s important for talent acquisition and hiring managers to be understanding of the extra pressures on candidates and be adaptable during these times.

What skills will those in talent acquisition need to draw on?

I think now, more than ever, talent acquisition professionals need to be creative, flexible, adaptable and empathetic. This is a stressful time for everyone and there are added pressures of conducting professional meetings at home, so being able to put yourself in the shoes of both the hiring manager and candidate is crucial.

Consistent and clear communication is also essential, and we must remember that we are providing the first impression to the candidate of MSD. We want to ensure we can describe the terrific culture of our sites where inclusion is key, and adaptability is part of our DNA.

Being able to provide information about the physical workplace the candidate will eventually be working in should not be overlooked.

What would your advice for job candidates preparing for remote interviews be?

We reassure candidates to not worry about any unexpected visitors joining the call, whether it’s children, pets or housemates. We are all operating remotely, so these situations are likely to happen to everyone at some stage, including ourselves. We don’t want any candidate to feel worried about this and if a member of the family or household pops in during the interview, we will be sure to welcome them too!

We encourage our candidates to dress comfortably, whether that’s a suit or casual clothes. However, every company is different, so don’t hesitate to ask what the dress code is.

We also suggest finding a spot in the house which is comfortable for you. Disruptions are understandable but it’s good to find a place that is as quiet as possible. As mentioned before, we check in with candidates a day in advance to ensure they are comfortable with their set-up and I’d always recommend a rehearsal run to ensure everything works in advance.

Whether it’s a face-to-face or remote interview, however, one principle remains the same: preparation is key. Understanding the processes and selection stages are essential, and there are some simple things you can do ahead of your remote interview to ensure you can avoid any mishaps on the day.

Test the technology you’ll be using and set it up well in advance. When setting up your camera, it helps to position the camera so that you are looking up slightly and centred on the screen. If you wear glasses, try adjusting the lighting in the room to reduce glare from the lenses. These are simple things you can do to help you feel confident on the day.

To see MSD’s open roles across Ireland, visit the company’s careers page.

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